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In a recent issue of Wine Spectator, senior editor James Laube wrote an article called “A Farewell to Bordeaux.” The piece states that the Asian markets’ demand for highly scored vintage Bordeaux has inflated Bordeaux prices beyond the bottle’s true worth. Laube goes on to state that he simply does not get the “heart racing excitement” of buying hard to find Chateaus anymore, especially at exorbitant prices. When I finished the article I found it coincidental that I had, just weeks before, put up a huge new Bordeaux display full of what I thought were excellently valued Chateaus. Do I have buyer’s remorse now? Not in the least.
Before we got out the tools and wooden crates, I, along with my friends and family, tried through many different Chateaus, from the right bank to the left bank, from $9.99 to $24.99, to get the perfect blend of wines for the new display. The wines Mr. Laube is talking about in his article are some of the high-end First Growth Bordeaux that carry exhorbatant price tags, commanding thousands of dollars. The Chateaus I’ve compiled represent a good cross section of France’s most famous region and most of them are made by families that have owned their vineyards for generations.
But what is Bordeaux anyway? Why is it so acclaimed – so sought after?
Well, let’s start with the basics. Bordeaux is a wine making region in the southwest of France. The area is divided by the Gironde River, with the wines on the Right Bank predominantly Merlot, while those from the Left Bank are Cabernet Sauvignon. The key to understanding Bordeaux is to acknowledge that most wines from the region are going to be a blend of specific grapes. The varietals which are allowed to be used in the making of Bordeaux are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. For white Bordeaux, only Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillion, Muscadelle are allowed.
Generally, the left bank wines are going to be robust reds with lots of structure due to the hearty Cabernet Sauvignon. When looking for left bank wines seek out wines from the Médoc. The Médoc is the largest region of Bordeaux, enclosing two important sub regions, Médoc (yes again) and to the south Haut-Médoc. Bordeaux, as a whole, has about ten significant regions. Within Médoc you will find four of them; Margaux, St. Estèphe, Pauillac, and St. Julien.
Margaux is the velvet glove of the four, silky and elegant yet powerful and long-lived. St Estèphe wines are earthy, rustic, and can be aged for a great deal of time due much impart to the clay in the soil. Pauillac, when young, is tannic and quite acidic, but with age these wines become powerful, full-bodied, black fruit-driven wines. Lastly, St. Julien is sort of the Goldilocks of the bunch; not as tannic as St. Estèphe, or as commanding as Pauillac, but very well balanced and floral.
The next major region is going to be Graves. Nestled up against a branch of the Gironde called the Garrone, Graves is a predominately a Cabernet Sauvignon growing region, but much of the best white Bordeaux also comes from the area. The reds are voluptuous and fruit-forward, while the whites are dry and refreshing.
If it is sweet that you are after, Bordeaux may not be the first wine region that comes to mind, however Sauternes makes world class sweet wines. This region is found at the southern most part of Bordeaux. There are both sweet and dry wines produced here, but the sweet are what made the region famous. The sweet Sauternes are infected with a fungus called Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. This fungus dehydrates the grapes (mostly Semillion and some Sauvignon Blanc), leaving the shriveled berries concentrated with sugar. The best Chateaus have impeccably balanced Sauternes that have ripe apricot flavors with cooked candy lemon peel acidity.
As you make your way back up the Gironde, you cross Entre-Duex-Mers, which literally means between two seas. Here good value Bordeaux is made – solid, everyday drinking wine. Next up would be St. Emilion, known for opulent, rich, wines with balanced acidity that makes them good for pairing with food. The primary grapes grown in St. Emilion are Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Though Merlot is the dominant grape, when bended with Cabernet franc the wines become balanced and complex.
Finally, we come to Pomerol, the smallest of the Bordeaux regions. Pomerol wines are intensely ripe and round, with less tannic structure than most other Bordeaux. Merlot is king here and, due to the rich soils, the grapes produce soft, long-lived wines.
Now, with all of this said, most of the Bordeaux that you will find under $25 will not have the region or sub-region on the label. They will simply say “Bordeaux.” Due to the influence of American wine buyers, many of the Chateaus have begun putting the percentages of the blends on the bottle. What’s important to remember is that most of these inexpensive Chateaus are going to be mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The weather influences the blend tremendously, if the Cabernet Sauvignon was a bit vegetal, they will add more Merlot to round out the flavor and vice versa.
This is just a hint of the rich history of Bordeaux, but for those of you that have been wary of buying these flavorful wines, hopefully it encouraged you to try a bottle.
Here are my top picks of the wines we brought in for our new display.
Chateau Gonin, Bordeaux 2005, $16.99
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot
– Dark purple in color with lots of cassis and blackberry on the nose. Rich and concentrated with bold black fruit flavors, silky mouth-feel and nice spicy finish. Pairing: Roasted Lamb chops, Irish Cheddar.
Chateau Cabannieux, Graves 2005, $16.99
50% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc
– Bright crimson in color, cooked cranberries are prevalent on the nose as well as the palate. Medium in body with red fruits lingering on the palate, the finish is dry with a hint of vanilla due to up to 2 years in oak barrels. Pairing: The Cabannieux is light enough for white meats like roast turkey and great for creamy goat cheese.
Chateau Puynormond, Montagne Saint Emilion, 2007, $14.99
90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc
– Dark red in color, bright red plum and cherry on the nose. Puynormond over-delivers with loads of ripe raspberry, cherry and licorice with silky, integrated tannins. Probably my favorite of the bunch! Pair with a creamy cheeses like a funky Brie, or medium soft cheese like Gruyere.
– Jennifer Laurie